The first Sevinch workshop

August 31, 2012


Finally the day came when Sevinch had to choose between Shithead and the continued existence of her business. This coincided with my own decision to stop being a corporate man, and to set up my own business, a textile testing laboratory in Cairo.

We rented two separate apartments, each within a few hundred yards of the other and a third apartment where we lived. This was on the island of Zamalek, which is somewhat akin to working and living in Belgravia. That is, if you can ignore the garbage in the streets and the broken pavements that risk broken ankles.

Sevinch’s workshop was on the ground floor, and had a tiny yard, in which we intended to do the spinning of cords. We rented from a very congenial lady called Madame Sadeyah: how congenial, we discovered later when she used to pop round for a chat every so often, and in a loud whisper ask whether we might have any vodka – or failing vodka, a beer would be just fine – in the fridge.

We built our first looms, set the whole place up, painted and decorated it – and waited. Sevinch was terrified: the thought of taking on the responsibility for her own production, for providing wages every week for 20 or so workers – it paralysed her. For six entire months her workshop remained empty, as she continued her daily commute to the Village of Rogues and Bandits. I was pulling my hair out with frustration, we were paying rent every month seemingly for nothing. It was the most dangerous moment of our lives: not only were we trying to get one new business up and running, but two; and this in a country that is notoriously difficult for foreign business owners.

I was also going through a difficult period. A textile laboratory is an expensive thing to set up and operate, and although I had a small portfolio of blue chip clients my former employers were doing much to try and frustrate the successful start up of the business.

But Shithead proved in the end to be our saviour. I can’t remember what he did, but as we have learned to patiently expect, people like him always overplay their hand just as they always underestimate the force of Sevinch’s rage once she realises she is being crossed. The next thing I knew was, the empty apartment was full of workers, the looms were resonating with the rhythm of the shuttles, and Sevinch was bustling around, her fear vanquished….

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Dear John

October 24, 2009

When the Metropolitan Museum of Art re-opened the Wrightsman Galleries after refurbishment, it threw a great reception around the centrepiece of the gallery: an 18th century state bed from France.

Metropolitan State Bed2

John Buscemi, our Boston friend and colleague, has over the years worked tirelessly and patiently with North American museums, and historical restoration and preservation organisations, promoting with ever-increasing success the use of Sevinch’s work. Working for these organisations is a validation as great as one can hope for: not only are they utterly demanding in terms of craftsmanship and technique – but more importantly, in terms of authenticity.

One of the great commissions John secured for us quite early in our relationship remains the most complex, the most arduous piece of weaving we ever did. It took 6 months to make 22 yards, and the hanging decorative elements on the fringe contained over 20,000 hand-made components. It was the reproduction of an 18th century piece for the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.

Take a look:

Biltmore 015

When the Metropolitan had its opening party, the Curator himself was kind enough to describe our work on the State Bed as “the most impressive passementerie that the Museum had commissioned in its history”. John was almost peeing himself, puppy-wise, at these words. Later, he was standing close to a couple of distinguished designers who were examining the fringes and the tassels:

American designer: “these trimmings are definitely American-made: Scalamandre”

French designer: “mais non, mais non, these are made in France: Claude Declercq”

John Buscemi, tapping them on the shoulder: “gentlemen, you are both wrong, these are made in Egypt, and they are made by SEVINCH”….

Dear John.

The Big Apple

October 24, 2009

One day, I think it was in 1994, Sevinch came home and announced: “We’re going to America. I am going to sell tassels in America”.

What else was there to say except: “Yes, dear”?

Off we went, budget airline, all the way to New York, arriving at 6 am. After checking in at a cheap but fun hotel we had chosen on the internet, The Wolcott, I was ready for a bit of a rest. Sevinch was having none of it. Oh no, we had to hit the road.

You must understand, this first foray into marketing in America was done in an utterly whimsical manner. There was no preparation, no preliminary contact with potential clients, nothing – except for the Yellow Pages in the hotel room. And a big holdall containing about 40 kilos of samples.

Green as grass in the Big Apple, we went out and did the door to door thing. It was demoralising at first: although we did manage to get to see people, generally the response was “look, lady, it’s a tough world. and I have to maximise the return on the display space that your product demands, and I can’t see that happening.”

You see, whereas other passementerie makers produce stock collections with a defined number of models and a defined number of colourways, all of which can be collated in sample books; we, Sevinch, were doing one-off custom work. No collections, no sample books, just the notion that we could make beautiful product to order, customised to match any fabric or design theme, on a project by project basis. Little did we know then how difficult it is to sell this concept. And we were selling it to the wrong people, people whose business model was fast turnover of sales, with the minimum of overhead and creative input.

Then one beautiful New York morning, we managed to get an appointment at Clarence House. We were somewhat overawed at the elegance of this firm, and of the people that agreed to meet us. There we were, novices from Cairo with our bag of samples, slightly out of breath and warm; and there they were, beautifully mannered, courteous, surrounded by a cornucopia of fabrics and passementerie on the walls of the showroom.

Louise Friedman showed us their passementerie collections. They were exquisitely made, the colours were clean and mellow, it was lovely work. Only later did we find out that they were the work of the most famous of the French passementerie makers, Declercq. And from that moment on, Claude Declercq became Sevinch’s hero, the benchmark against which she has thereafter always compared herself, and striven to equal.

But I digress. Louise explained to us very kindly that Clarence House was committed to another supplier and therefore was unable to do anything with us. But after a moment’s hesitation, she asked us to excuse her, and she went into her office to make a phone call. A few moment later she came back with a name and address on a piece of paper, and suggested that we might be welcomed there.

We returned to the hotel and called the number. It was Christopher Hyland, at the D&D Building on 3rd Avenue, and he asked us to come over straight away.

Let me simply say that this was in 1994, and we are still most happily working with Christopher. He saw the potential in our work, and backed us from that moment. He sent us swatches of the most beautiful and expensive fabrics against which to colour our trims and tassels, and fringes. At the same time, an inspired Sevinch was refining over and again the execution of the work until it became clean and crisp, and with the new colours we knew that we had entered a new phase: that we were becoming professional passementerie makers, that our work began to command respect.

We owe a debt of gratitude to both Louise and Christopher, who set us on the path which has culminated (so far) with Sevinch product hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Wallace Collection in London and many other points in between.
Metropolitan detail 4

It was a good first trip to the Big Apple.

The village (cont’d)

October 14, 2009

Sevinch worked with Shithead in the village of rogues and bandits for several years, the situation gradually going from bad to worse. She was putting in long hours in a run-down workshop that didn’t belong to her, paying the wages of workers that were not contracted to her, and desperately dodging the dirty little tricks that Shithead was playing.

TB0731

By now we had a respectable portfolio of clients in America and Europe, and our work was beginning to be appreciated. Conversely, the more business we put Shithead’s way, the more he was emboldened to hold Sevinch to ransom, by deliberately slowing down production, and by increasing the contract price halfway through. He was even copying our styles and selling them to Cairo showrooms.

But there were other moments. The village, unbeknown to us at the time, appreciated Sevinch’s kindnesses, and the story of the toys – and of Shithead’s theft of the toys – was known everywhere.

One day, when she was at the village, Sevinch had a malaise; she couldn’t breathe and experienced chest pains. She was rushed down to the small local hospital, where she was confronted by huge queues of very poor people who had been waiting all day to see a doctor. To her astonishment and further discomfort, she was ushered into a young doctor’s consulting room without any wait. As he examined her, she said:

“Doctor, I am embarassed, all those poor people waiting outside – and yet I get attended to instantly? I am sure there are those in more urgent need?”

“Madame Sevinch. Do you begin to realise how much you are appreciated in this village? Can you imagine the grief I would get from the people, if anything happened to you while you were in my hospital?”

Alright, so perhaps the rogues and bandits have a sentimental side…

The Movie Tassel

October 14, 2009

Movie Tassel

This 3.5 metre tall tassel was made by us last year for a movie called “Nine”; it will be out in December 2009, I believe.

Village life

October 13, 2009

Sevinch was now commuting regularly to the village of rogues and vagabonds, to supervise the production of her orders in Sabbagh’s workshop. It was a long day for her, and frankly depressing since the assault on the senses was unremitting: the filth, the smell, the gloom, the noise. Nevertheless, she kept her spirits high, since for her this was the learning curve. Sabbagh was planting the seeds of his own downfall when he allowed her into his workshop to learn the techniques of passementerie making.

She came home one day, and over a glass of wine she said “darling, I noticed something about the village today.”

“The kids, they are everywhere. They have no shoes, their clothes are rags, they have snot running down their faces. But you know what struck me?”

“They have no toys, nowhere do you see toys ”

The thought giving birth to the deed, Sevinch spent the next few days going around all her rich friends demanding that they hand over all their children’s used and unwanted toys. She took these out in great quantity to the village, and handed them over to Sabbagh with instructions to distribute them to the children.

Many months later we discovered that Sabbagh had sold the toys and trousered the proceeds

Mohamed Abboud’s precipitate departure from Egypt left Sevinch a bit exposed. She had secured a modest client base, and she had orders to be executed. Fortunately, we had met on a social occasion a congenial young Canadian who by a remote coincidence was also making tassels in Egypt. And he put us in touch with another workshop.

And thence started our long and troubled relationship with the village of rogues and bandits. I am sure you will forgive me for not naming it, but vendetta has a long memory in this country.

The first swarovski fringe

The workshop owner was named Sabbagh, but rapidly became known, for reasons that will become clear during the unfolding of this tale, as Shithead. The man was hugely talented, experienced, and at the beginning cooperative and reasonable.

The village was almost beyond description. The main street an open sewer, running next to an irrigation canal choked with detritus, raw sewage, noxious chemicals, and the ubiquitous plastic bag. Half-finished houses are within mere feet of each other, separated by muddy lanes, with livestock and barefoot children cohabiting in tiny garbage-filled courtyards. And everywhere you move you feel the eyes upon you.

Sabbagh’s workshop was tiny, cramped, so badly lit, you could barely see the floor, let alone the work on the looms. The lines and cordage were wound on spinning motors out in the street, and the mountains of discarded yarn bobbins were stored on a flat roof with no parapet: one day (a year before our arrival in the village) one of Sabagh’s 11 children stepped on a bobbin, slipped and crashed to his death in the street below.

For all that, at the beginning, his work was good: well-executed, the colours spot-on, and delivered on time. Sevinch and her customers were satisfied with this at least. But all too soon, Sabbagh’s innate instincts took over. Delivery periods started to slip, the quality became patchy, and he would put up the prices halfway through production. Sevinch discovered that his workers had not been paid for up to 6 months at a time, and in desperation effectively took over the responsibility for financing his payroll: Sabbagh was all too happy for her to pay the salaries directly to the workers, whom he would then put onto production orders other than Sevinch’s.

In no time at all Sevinch was doing a daily commute to the village, and effectively running Sabbagh’s workshop for him. Did I say Sabbagh? No, no, no – by this time he was well and truly Shithead.